More Automotive Future: Clean Diesel
My essay a few weeks back called A View of Our Automotive Future stirred up a lot of controversy and generated a lot of reader email. It’s easy to forget that as wound up as people get about Microsoft, Apple, and Linux, nothing compares to what happens when you poke people where they really live: their automobiles.
I also managed to anger a whole ton of people with my comments about climate change being — to my mind — man-made. Almost no one wrote me to disagree that we’re experiencing climate change; but many SFNL readers wrote to tell me that global warming is not caused by the significantly increased CO2 levels generated in part by humanity. OK, well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. My concern is that the polar ice cap is melting, and we’re standing around debating whose fault it is. My tendency is to focus on solving the problem.
I’m happy to report that another huge batch of readers wrote to tell me that they, too, have purchased a hybrid gas/electric vehicle of some sort. Interestingly, though, a lot of people also wrote to tell me hybrids aren’t really the answer. Of course they’re not the last word. They still burn nonrenewable resources, don’t they? The point many were trying to make is that the complexity and weight involved with internal combustion/electric hybrid vehicles makes them imperfect — especially as replacements for larger vehicles. They also make small vehicles heavier with their battery packs. This is all true. It’s the engineering trade-off for a vehicle that has two means of propelling itself. But that doesn’t change the fact that even my wife’s relatively heavy Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets better gas mileage than its lighter nonhybrid Highlander brandmates. It also gets nearly two times the miles per gallon delivered by the SUV it replaces in the Finnie household. And it generates fewer harmful emissions.
The truth is, there’s a lot of cult-like support out there for this or that kind of automotive technology. Some pundits hate hybrid technology and prefer diesel. Others say that hydrogen can’t be done — and it’s true that a number of issues have to be solved before hydrogen has its day, if it ever does. There are even wild alternative approaches bouncing around the Internet, like “burning” saltwater (video). (I’m told this isn’t a hoax, but I have no way to prove that.) Or how about pouring water over aluminum alloy to generate hydrogen? Then there’s the ever popular engineered egg shells generating hydrogen.
I’m not saying these are proven technologies nor am I intending to make fun of them. A certain amount of experimentation will be required before good ideas are adopted and strung together to make a usable solution. People scoffed at the internal combustion engine in its infancy too.
Clean Diesel in the U.S.
European markets are way, way ahead of the U.S. marketplace in at least one way. Until recently, the dirty diesel fuel sold here with its inconsistent cetane ratings caused diesel engines to run with excessive noise and vibration, emit more noxious fumes, and experience hard starting in cold weather. European standards had been much better than U.S. standards. So much so that diesel engines designed for European markets didn’t do well on U.S. diesel without modification — making it expensive for automakers to sell diesel-engine vehicles in North America.
But last year, the U.S. began the adoption of ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD), which is roughly comparable to the diesel fuel sold in much of Europe. ULSD on its own doesn’t solve the emissions problem. Cleaning up diesel’s mess requires exhaust-control devices, such as catalytic converters, that would have been hampered by the high sulfur levels of the previous-generation diesel fuel sold in the U.S.
Many SFNL readers wrote to ask me why I didn’t include diesel as a competitor to hybrid technology in the U.S. Simply put, it’s very hard to buy a new diesel automobile in the U.S. that isn’t either a truck or a very expensive luxury car. Many of these models also aren’t rated to get dramatically better fuel mileage than their gasoline-powered counterparts. What’s known as “clean diesel” technology is on its way, but it’s not going to be here for another year or two, and it’s not going to be as serious as hybrid technology already is in the U.S. for another four to five years.
I’ve been watching diesel for a long time. It costs more in the U.S. right now than regular gasoline, but that might change if there were more demand. Many of the engines now being designed to address the Clean Diesel initiative in North America will also be able to accept at least a percentage of biodiesel, which as its names implies, is generated from a renewable resource: vegetable oil. Clean diesel and biodiesel are excellent alternatives to hybrid technology, but it’s not all there yet. ULSD and biodiesel burning in today’s diesel engines emit particulate matter and high levels of nitrogen oxides. These things can be addressed at least in part by pollution-control technologies, but in the U.S., clean diesel engines are only just beginning to emerge.
DieselForum.org has a list diesel vehicles under development, many of which are designed to get better fuel mileage and reduced emissions. Audi and Volkswagen have very strong offerings in Europe, and the two makers have near-term plans to ship their advanced TDI diesel vehicles to the U.S. in the near future.
Because I’m the practical type: The VW Jetta SportWagen TDI, due in 2008, is one of the models I’m partial to.
The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen
For more info about Volkswagen’s diesel plans, which include a new small SUV called the Tiguan, the Passat, and the Jetta sedan, check out this January 2007 press release.
Another vehicle I’ve got my eye on is the 2010 Honda Accord. Honda is said to be working on clean diesel 4- and 6-cylinder engines for the U.S. market. The automaker is expected to deliver a clean diesel Accord model by 2010, according to CNET.
Both VW and Honda are pledging to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions significantly in their forthcoming diesel engines. Both will meet the toughest emissions standards in both the U.S. and Europe.
It’s not clear to me that biodiesel is the future, but the fact that it’s one of the few fuels, like ethanol, that’s renewable is encouraging. Improvements to diesel emissions, the advent of biodiesel, and the fact that the diesel engine is more efficient than the gasoline engine are all strong pluses. Even so, my guess is that diesel-powered automobiles are still a transitional solution.
We’re still in search of a better, cleaner, renewable way to power the world’s automobiles. And we have a long way to go.